20 May 2010

State of the Environment reporting presentation to Local Government and Environment Committee

How clean is NZ?
Measuring and reporting on the state of our environment

Local Government & Environment Committee

20 May 2010


I would like to begin by reading something to you.

Our clean green image is under intense scrutiny both at home and overseas. We must be able to show that there is substance to this image and that we are prepared to acknowledge and redress the brown spots where they occur.  This can only be done by comprehensive monitoring, fearless acknowledgement of the results and genuine attempts to resolve any problems uncovered by them.

That's not an extract from my report.
It's written by the Minister for the Environment introducing the State of the Environment report in 1997 the Honourable Simon Upton.
13 years ago.

I'm here to talk about the same thing  measuring and reporting on the state of our environment – finding out how clean and green this country really is.

We need to up our game on this:

To measure well
To report transparently
To have the information freely available and trusted.

It was surprising to find out that New Zealand is the only country in the OECD that does not have regular reporting on the state of our environment required by legislation.
At the national level, that is – Regional Councils are required to do it.
It's surprising because we are the country that markets itself on being clean and green.
What we have had thus far is sporadic stop-start reporting.

I'm not talking about something that's easy to do  reporting well on the state of our environment is difficult.
There are a million things to measure.
And we need to think about it within the bigger area of environmental statistics.

I want now to talk about three things:

First, the bigger area of environmental statistics and the challenges of doing a good job of reporting on the state of our environment.
Second, looking back at how such reporting has already been done in NZ.
Third, looking forward to how we might do it better.

So the bigger area of environmental statistics.
There are three reasons why we want environmental data.

#1: State of the environment reporting  measuring how clean and green we really are.

#2: Causes. What is causing the damage  or indeed the improvement?

If we are worried about phosphate in freshwater, then what's causing it? Sewage, eroding riverbanks, cows doing their business in streams, Canada geese?
There are multiple causes, so what is the relative contribution of each? When we know this we can design policies and plans to do what Simon Upton calls "redressing the brown spots".
I don't want to give the impression that we don't know a lot already but it's patchy.

#3: Measuring the effectiveness of those policies and plans. Reporting on the state of our environment is one use of environmental statistics.
There are wider issues about designing policies based on evidence.

Measuring and reporting on the state of the environment is very difficult.
It is much harder than social or economic statistics – counting people and money is relatively easy.

There is an infinite number of things that we could measure.

There is a big prioritisation job  what are we most worried about?
And what would give us the most bang for our measurement buck?
It is easy to fall into the trap of measuring what can be easily measured rather than what should be measured.
A rough measurement of something really important is much more valuable than an accurate measurement of something that doesn't really matter.

The environment is big  where to measure?
Things change all the time  from season to season, for instance  so how often to measure?
What units to measure in?
What kind of equipment / measurement techniques?
What analytic techniques?

This isn't easy.
It's complex but it can and must be done.

In the report, these issues are illustrated using phosphorus in freshwater.
An indisputably serious environmental problem.

And by the way in June I'm giving a presentation on water quality at Parliament.

I hope to see you there.

Now I want to look back at how we have reported on the state of our environment – at the national level.

We have had two state of the environment reports  one in 1997 and one in 2007.
Here they are.
What we have had is sporadic stop-start reporting.
And we have been criticised by the OECD for not having ongoing systematic programmes for collecting useful data – three times.
There was also a burst of activity from 1996 to 2002 focused on developing environmental indicators.

The release of the second report at the end of 2007 report generated considerable criticism.
There was a call for the reporting to be done independently, not by the Ministry for the Environment.

In the 2007 report there are descriptions of programmes designed to address the environmental problems identified.
These programmes are both central government and local government programmes.
This drew some criticism because it was seen as self-promotion.

The freshwater chapter attracted particular criticism.
The ways in which data had been amalgamated and averaged meant you couldn’t tell whether some problems were getting better or worse.

But the reality for the Ministry for the Environment  in both 1997 and 2007  was that they were left scrambling for whatever data they could get.
And there's a lot of work in collating data.

A steady ongoing programme is required  not short term bursts of activity.
Stop start means gearing up and gearing down.
This makes it very difficult to manage budgets.

So what should be done?
Three things are required  accountability, independence, and technical capability.

Roles and responsibilities should be established through a National Environment Reporting Act.
Notice the plural  roles and responsibilities  lots of organisations involved  councils, Crown Research Institutes and others will go on measuring.
As I said at the beginning, New Zealand is the only country in the OECD that is not legally required to regularly report on the state of the environment.
There is no ongoing accountability.

Most of the state of the environment reports in other OECD countries are written by agencies with some degree of independence from Government.
The most independent is Denmark where it is done by a university.

Technical capacity:
Technical and operational capacity are essential.

I spoke at the beginning about transparency and trust.

Looking ahead, we need two different things.
To report in a transparent way on the reality of our clean green image.
And to do it in a way that engenders public trust.

Environmental statistics  primary data  freely available on the internet.
Where it can be added to and updated.
Where anyone can analyse it, but we all have access to the same data.
Where you can see what's happening to biodiversity.
Where you can see what's happening to your river.
And because the data is standardised, your river can be compared with others.
I have good news here  the Regional Councils are pioneering this approach with water quality  led by Manawatu-Wanganui.

A national state of the environment report  a paper publication - every few years.
This report would draw on the data on the internet.
Summarise it.
And provide commentary on what it means  what we should worry about the most and why.

Thank you.